The Last Course Kimberly Lyons
A while back, three poets stayed up late one evening and on another afternoon went to look at Karl Klingbiel’s paintings and drawings. We had asked to see what he was up to in the most recent course of his work. In the tight, electrified space of a room at night, the paintings glowed, not exactly softly luminous as though lit with warm fire, but as bioluminescent with the cold fire of fireflies or glowworms, the veining line in his paintings self-contained as tubular neon. One poet remarked that Klingbiel, with the arc of his paint swaths across packed vistas, as in Brighton Pier D, had stepped into de Kooning’s late room in which de Kooning’s gestures in paint were like an echo, a fractured road; that Klingbiel came just after the echo dissipated and reconfigured the room and thus tangentially reopened the promise and vulnerability of that space.
In the intimacy of our gazing and within the proximities of darkness, the paintings projected an urgent, hectic vision of optic brilliance. One poet said that she felt vertiginous, as though poised on the outer rim of a roller coaster, or hovering at the entrance ramp of a highway in Tokyo, that the circularity and traffic in The Nectar Guides had decentered her sense of ground and threw all coordinates off. While the paintings presented a depth and zone of intense activity, the species of activity was not discernible. Klingbiel responded by remarking that “how the matrix of images is made is rather mysterious to me. Whatever you arrive at, it’s going to be something else. If I try and fix on any image, it’s already moving away.” One does feel drawn forward into the zone; you want to enter it in the same way you want to enter a hallucination: up to a point, within safe limits. However, consider the fractal choppy cold of Brighton Pier C. Blisters of ice careen off frozen surfaces in a slow-moving cascade of splinters. Edges of a rosy dawn shine through the deep convexity but one feels immersed in a field of dangerous shards that would pulverize a human. It’s in this painterly intersection that the work seems entirely 21st century, as though of stations far in space, a world away from any gestural, expressionistic result. But what is the nature of this painterly space? Is it microbial, a cellular stain at the magnification level of the microscopic? A panel of chaotic circuitry? An x-ray of a superstorm? In the instability of relationships, location and substance, there is excitement as well as incitement but no platform of continuity. One stands before these works, entirely drawn in, yet hovering at the upper registers with trepidation. If you have ever been swimming on the surface of oceanic waters, just at the verge of a deep dive towards latent, partly transformed, partly recognizable objects on a sea floor, you might recognize the sensation. This tension, or instability, Klingbiel refers to as a kind of “stillness” and it is this stillness, this hovering, that represents the chief goal of the work.
To see these works by daylight, and work now in progress, we visited in late afternoon Klingbiel’s large, many-windowed studio in Maspeth, NY. In the warmth of the ochre-lit space and among a few domestic and art objects, and among many books, the paintings presented accessible surfaces with a turbulence we perceived in the slightly raised, imbedded sections of the images, which are made on heavy paper, then mounted on birch veneer panels. Sunlight revealed the variations in the warp and weft of a fantastic interplay of the palette. It was here, in the studio, that Klingbiel explained and demonstrated some of the stages of the process in which he is currently engaged, after years of sustained experimentation and development. Klingbiel explained that he first “draws” with a router, incising large plywood panels, creating a kind of template or stenciled image on their surfaces. I observed the frustrating imprecision of doing so, and Klingbiel answered that he valued the imprecision between intent and execution, of fighting the torque of the router and thus vying with the “assertion” of the machine; that such a process admitted the autonomy of the image itself, the notion of its self-creation. This self-creation in turn sets the basis for the rest of the image-making, and that he needed the paintings to fight his intentions to a certain degree. “I want things slightly out of control” he commented. After the routed image is completed, the paper is laid onto the resulting wood figuration, and layer after layer of polymer paint is then squeegeed across the surface, a process that is additionally imprecise, and a “print” is thus created. Klingbiel views each print as “the matrix that I can both engage with and push off of.” The print is then mounted on the birch panel and treated with other, fragmented, layered, redacted, and distilled imagery. It is here where the struggle for control of the work takes place, a stage that can take weeks, or that is sometimes nearly immediate. On occasion the polymer images are simply left alone.
We went from painting to painting, experiencing the multiple arenas between them and noting their differences. There was no sensation of viewing an orderly progression of variants. Each of the pieces conveys its own dynamic weather pattern and vortex. For instance, a work such as Brighton Pier F presents the system that may call to mind coiled viscera, or intestinal containers, or even insulation tightly packed behind a wall, with its vivid fleshy coloration of the foreground somewhat reminiscent of Guston’s pink-jowled figures. This association, however, is just a shadow, as this work is more saturated and the core imagery really feels biologically systemic. The packed, layered, almost thumb-like alphabet of marks in Brighton Pier F contrasts with Brighton Pier A, in which gusts of paleness shine behind the saffron streaks to reveal wide open slices where an iris-color zags across, setting up a narrow current that contrasts with the thickness of surface in Brighton Pier F. Across all these works, there seems to be a systemic circulation, with veins, cyclonic cells and the propulsion of a rhizomatic, root-like, searching line that seems innately driven. Overall, there seems to be an organic impulse to the drive that stands apart from Klingbiel’s own decisions.
One constant: each painting enacts a dialectic in tense vectors of horizontality and verticality. Klingbiel employs a vocabulary of marks, gusts and strokes in a deep-hued tonality with a resulting panorama of shifts. The fight-and flight of directional energies is also worked out (or, more likely, worked off of) in each painting and carries over into the new pieces we viewed.
There are tangents of a lineage here. Some names that came up that afternoon in his workshop were Max Ernst, the Matisse of the cut-outs, Joan Mitchell, Brice Marden, Gary Stephan. Klingbiel absorbed our explorations with a sense of humor but would not concede that Abstract Expressionism is the mode his work fits into. And in fact there is too much pre-planning, preparatory drawing, wrestling with machinery and materials, and gradual delay in the progression, for the work not to be described, finally, as “constructed.” Klingbiel did allow that he has a deep interest in “maps, alchemical drawings, botanical diagrams, barbed wire fencing. Weird shit.”
I wandered the studio and took note of the catalogs strewn around. Audubon, Piero della Francesca, Gerard ter Borch, Giotto, Tintoretto. Ah ha. The scrubby, veiled blue of the Venetians, their wide arc of painterly stroke, can be discerned, however evanescently, in Klingbiel’s work. There was not one art book of a modern to be found. “Sometimes I think I was born 500 years too late,” Klingbiel joked. As the light deepened into shadow, he agreed to pull out a huge sheaf of drawings. He admits to a fascination with plants, especially in their moribund stages, whereby desiccation imposes “a more interesting line, and a more inherently metaphorical affect.” Several bunches of such remaindered plants around the studio supported the exquisite effect of the hand-drawn ink pieces of that he pulled out of the drawer and laid on a large work table, an exquisiteness obviated by the areas of stain Klingbiel purposefully applies to introduce accident and interruption. (He explained that the first such pieces were suggested by an accident of rain coming through open windows in the space above his studio one day, seeping through the ceiling and staining forty or so of his dead flower drawings). The resulting images, layered with the tension between intention and randomness, convey a lyricism along with deformation and mapping that is akin to what we recognize in the poetry most meaningful to us.
Kimberly Lyons is a poet living and working in Chicago, and is the founder of the Lunar Chandelier Press